Nixon, plumbers and presidential leaks: 50 years after Watergate break-in

The actual 'crime' of Watergate was not so much the break-in but the cover up that came after; the burglary may not have had Nixon's authorisation but the elaborate cover ups had his handwriting all over it

Far too many comparisons have been drawn between the presidencies of Nixon and Trump but the limitations are for all to see

“I have never been a quitter. To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body. But as President, I must put the interest of America first,” said Richard Milhous Nixon on August 8, 1974.

At noon the following day, the 37th President of the US took Marine One back to California, making him the first President to have resigned from office in the face of a sure conviction in the Senate, in the event of an impeachment trial. Whether what Nixon did was good for the institution of the presidency instead of tarnishing it more than what he had already done is something that academics and journalists continue to ponder about.

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On Friday, June 17, America remembers the 50th anniversary of the Watergate Break-in, that fateful night of 1972 that would start a political nightmare, thanks to the relentless investigative work of two young reporters of The Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. The duo is very much alive today, reminiscing the banal attempts of the chief executive to stay in power but also reminding journalism students the difference between seeking the truth in a determined fashion or to be satisfied with handouts.

Group of plumbers

Five “plumbers” broke into the Democratic National Headquarters (DNC) in the wee hours of June 17, 1972 to make good on a botched attempt a few days earlier and were arrested by local police. Actually, the “plumbers” were a loose assortment of handymen and supposedly one-time operators of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The plumbers were actually a team put together in 1971 by so-called over-zealous staffers of the Nixon administration from those who were trying to “screw” their man in the Oval Office.

The day after the break-in at the DNC, the denials started — first at the White House, with press secretary Ron Ziegler labelling it a “third rate burglary”, only to be followed by his boss a few days later with a flat-out denial.

For close to two years Nixon, at every available opportunity, told the American people that he had done nothing to interfere with the FBI investigation of the break-in. But the truth was slowly catching up and the pieces slowly falling in place, thanks to the meticulous reporting of the Woodward-Bernstein duo with valuable inputs from “Deep Throat”, the pseudonym of the informant, revealed thirty years later as William Mark Felt, then FBI associate director.

Eternal fascination

The Watergate break-in on the banks of the Potomac always fascinated students and professionals alike, and for primarily two reasons: first, did Nixon really need the assistance of plumbers to win the election of 1972; and second, what did the President know of the break-in and when did he know of it. 

The burglary at Watergate happened some five months before the November 1972 presidential election that Nixon won hands down. Forty-nine states voted for the Republican President, including for the first time the South; he walked away with 61 per cent of the popular vote, humbling his Democratic opponent George McGovern, who won only the state of Massachusetts.

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Even critics of Nixon say that he did not authorise the Watergate operation. “Who is the asshole who did” was one of the President’s first questions. The actual “crime” of Watergate was not so much the break-in but the cover up that came after. The burglary may not have had the authorisation of Nixon but the elaborate cover ups had his handwriting from the very beginning; and Nixon succumbed to a taping system he himself had installed in the White House.

Just six days after the plumbers broke into the DNC headquarters, Nixon devised a plan that would have the CIA effectively telling the FBI to back off on “national security” grounds. The “Smoking Gun” tape that Nixon feverishly tried to withhold from Federal and Congressional investigators citing executive privilege was forced to be outed by a unanimous ruling of the Supreme Court. And on July 24, 1974, Nixon knew that his goose had been cooked.

The ‘leaks’

“When you get in these people… say: Look, the problem is that this will open the whole, the whole Bay of Pigs thing, and the President just feels that”, “ah, without going into the details… don’t, don’t lie to them to the extent to say there is no involvement, but just say this is sort of a comedy of errors, bizarre, without getting into it,” “the President believes that it is going to open the whole Bay of Pigs thing up again. And, ah because these people are plugging for, for keeps and that they should call the FBI in and say that we wish for the country, don’t go any further into this case, period!”, “That’s the way to put it, do it straight”, Nixon was heard instructing his chief of staff HR Haldeman on June 23, 1972 in a conversation that started around 10 am. 

This was enough for the Special Prosecutor to see that Nixon had obstructed justice.

Caught with his pants down, Nixon had literally nowhere to turn to. The 10 Republicans in the House Judiciary Committee, who had rejected the articles of impeachment, indicated that they would go along with impeaching the President when it came to the House floor; and Republican support in the Senate was evaporating quickly to no more than a handful in favour of an acquittal. Finally, it took Senator Barry Goldwater and two other Republicans to get to the White House on August 5, 1974 to deliver a blunt message.

Senator Goldwater is reported to have told Nixon, “You may have a few votes (in the Senate), but you don’t have mine”. At no time during the course of the meeting did the word “resignation” come up, it seems. That was entirely Nixon’s call.

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But the pain was for all to see: a President with a low tolerance for alcohol getting drunk on scotch, talking to former Presidents in paintings in the White House, rambling late night calls to officials and at one time setting off a fear that he may even commit suicide.

Chief of Staff General Alexander Haig recalls one such conversation. “You fellows, in your business, you have a way of handling problems like this. Somebody leaves a pistol in the drawer… I don’t have a pistol,” Nixon said. Senior officials in the administration were worried about the mental stability of the Commander-in-Chief that word was sent to the military brass not to take orders from the President.

Might sound bizarre but there were apparently those who were worried of Nixon barricading himself inside the White House…call in the 82nd Airborne Division out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina? The bottom line for all this: Invoke the 25th Amendment, or removal on grounds of incapacitation?

The Trump ‘Gates’

The term Watergate still reverberates, not just in the portals of American politics or in journalism schools. One count has it that there are at least 250 “Gates” that have been used as a suffix to all kinds of scandals and shady deals the world over. The Presidency of Donald Trump between 2017 and 2021 have seen many parallels to that of the Nixon era, not just with the 45th President having to get through two impeachment processes, but get called out for abuse of power and even a heated internal debate on whether or not to invoke the 25th Amendment.

And after eighteen months out of power, Trump still believes that he was cheated out of office, raising a broader question as to what happened to all the Goldwater Republicans in the Grand Old Party, if any left. Far too many comparisons have been drawn between the presidencies of Nixon and Trump but the limitations are for all to see.

Nixon was a smart political cookie from the time he came to the House of Representatives at the age of 33, working himself up to the Senate as vice-president and having nearly beaten John F Kennedy in 1960. Trump was a political novice on the assumption he could run the country by his whims and fancies and bringing democracy to near disastrous limits as is currently seen through Congressional investigations of the January 6, 2021 riots on Capitol Hill. 

In fact, Nixon would have gone down differently in history if only he had not let paranoia get the better of him!

(The writer was a senior journalist in Washington covering North America and the United Nations)

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal)

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